In case you don’t know who Illeana Douglas is, she will be the first to admit, albeit reluctantly, that she is best known as That Cape Fear Girl, the one who gets her cheek bitten off by Robert De Niro in the 1991 Scorsese pic. I know this – that Douglas accepts the tag of Cape Fear Girl, not that she gets her cheek bitten off – because I’ve just finished reading her memoir, I Blame Dennis Hopper, and a jolly good read it is too. What’s it like, people ask her, having your cheek bitten off by Robert De Niro, “like I’m going to offer up some amazing insight, something profound (he covers himself in soot ashes then incants the words of Stanislavski) or mystical (he only works at sunrise, with his body facing east).”
Okay, so I didn’t learn a lot about Robert De Niro from her book but I did learn a lot of other things. That Illeana D was funny, I knew already. I Blame Dennis Hopper – despite the disclaimer that it is NOT a kiss and tell tale – is full of witty but warm anecdotes, while staying just the right side of cute and cuddly. Illeana started out in stand-up, after all, and you can’t be too cute in stand-up. I knew she had “dated” Martin Scorsese (for about nine years). But I didn’t know she was the grand-daughter of Melvyn Douglas, Hollywood aristocrat and – in the autumn of his career – the award-winning supporting actor in two great films. The first was Polanski’s peculiar and disturbing follow-up to Chinatown, The Tenant and the second was Hal Ashby’s Being There, in which Douglas grand-pere plays dying businessman and kingmaker Ben Rand, who takes the simple-minded Chauncy Gardener (played by Peter Sellers) under his wing and turns him into a presidential candidate. And why not? Ronald Reagan got elected, after all. And George Bush. And Donald Trump.
More things I learned from Illeana Douglas: that her dad – Melvyn’s son – became a kind of hippy, in the sense that he let everyone come live in his house, eat his food and smoke his weed (a bit like Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, only Wilson’s new friends were the Manson Family, and you don’t want them moving into your home, no siree!). Illeana blames Easy Rider, hence the title of her book – a hippy and druggy she is not, which makes you wonder how she ever got together with Scorsese, a man who rarely fluffed his lines, at least not in the 1970s, when he and Paul Schrader and Brian de Palma and Uncle Tom Cobbley were all at it.
I had no idea that Illeana Douglas loved drive-in movies, although why shouldn’t she? But she loves all drive-in movies, whether they cross over into arthouse (MASH, Scarecrow) or remain where we like them best, in grindhouse territory (It’s Alive, Alice Sweet Alice, Burnt Offerings etc etc). She also had a part in Jungle Fever, Spike Lee’s best film, but that got cut. And she’s in Gus Van Sandt’s To Die For, playing Matt Dillon’s sister, and (spoiler alert) gets to take out a contract on Nicole Kidman, which we’ve all wanted to do at one time or another. And she has a brilliant anecdote about not going all starstruck in front of Marlon Brando cuz Marty doesn’t want her to, and then not being able to hold it back, and bursting into tears.
She even made me like Richard Dreyfuss, kind of. Or at least recognise that he can act. Sometimes it takes a fellow thespian to point these things out. She reminded me that he is really good in Jaws, and generally really good at playing annoying. Or maybe he just is annoying, and Douglas is wrong. She doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone really, not even David Greene, the septuagenarian director of Bella Mafia, who kept telling her how terrible she was. Poor Illeana: she had to act opposite Nastassja Kinski and Jennifer Tilly, both of whom whispered their lines (“That’s why I’m leaning forward in every scene – I could never hear my co-stars.”) And poor David, once mighty helmsman of great British flicks like The Strange Affair and I Start Counting, reduced in his dipsomaniac dotage to crappy US TV movies like Bella Mafia. No wonder he hated his actresses. He had directed Susan George in The Strange Affair, and after THAT everything else was always going to be an anti-climax.
Best of all, Douglas starred (yes, STARRED!) in Grace of My Heart, which is an absolutely fantastic music movie, loosely based on the career of the insanely gifted Carole King, with Matt Dillon playing a Brian Wilson-type and John Turturro inhabiting the role of a control freak producer who in no way resembles Phil Spector (okay, so he does resemble Phil Spector). Great songs by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, among others. Great costumes and photography. Great performances all round. And directed by a shameless earth mother of a director, Alison Anders, who also made Gas Food and Lodging. Douglas reminds us in her book that there’s a wonderful strand of women’s pictures (and women’s performances) running through the 1970s, from great films like A Woman Under The Influence (with Gena Rowlands) and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Ellen Burstyn) to lesser movies with great actresses, like An Unmarried Woman (Jill Clayburgh) and Coming Home (with Jane Fonda, having her first orgasm, on-screen at least).
“Look,” says Illeana, towards the end of her book, “I will always be like that guy cleaning up after the elephant and saying, what, me – give up show business?” But she hasn’t had it that bad, really. Sure, De Niro took a chunk out of her cheek, but it bought her immortality of sorts in the movie pantheon. And she’d be the first to describe herself as frog-faced. I guess she thought she’d get that insult in before anyone else did. Sometimes you gots to kiss a lot of frogs anyway, before you find a really beautiful frog.